A Devil of a Duke
In A Devil of a Duke, the second book in Madeline Hunter’s Decadent Dukes Society series, attention turns to the roguish, devilishly handsome ladies’ man Gabriel St. James, Duke of Langdon, who is inadvertently entangled in the hunt for a thief and blackmailer when he becomes intent on the seduction of a young woman he encounters at a masked ball. The premise is intriguing and while cross-class romances can be difficult to pull off, Ms. Hunter has done so before and I had confidence she would do so here – but while I’ve enjoyed a number of her books, this one just didn’t work for me. For one thing, I’m suffering slightly from ‘duke fatigue’ – it seems that nine out of ten historical romance heroes these days are dukes and it’s something of an understatement when I say that I’m getting just a little bit tired of them – and for another, the story simply failed to draw me in and hold my attention. The pacing, especially in the first half, is very slow, there is hardly any chemistry or emotional connection between the principals and their relationship is based entirely on physical attraction, and never goes beyond that.
Amanda Waverly is something of an oddity – a female secretary. Employed by the eccentric Lady Farnsworth at a time when even ladies were supposed to have male secretaries, Amanda has worked for the lady for five months and has proved herself to be extremely competent and able to handle whatever task she is assigned. But Amanda is living a lie. The daughter of jewel thieves, Amanda’s father abandoned her and her mother some years ago after a job-gone-wrong, and not long after that, her mother left after enrolling Amanda in a good school. Now, Mrs. Waverly has fallen into the hands of a man who is blackmailing Amanda into pulling jobs for him in order to guarantee her mother’s safety. His latest demand is that Amanda must steal an item of great value from the home of Sir Malcolm Nutley, which is located not too far from the British Museum. The house is very securely closed up and gaining entry is going to be difficult – but Amanda cannot bear the thought of letting her mother come to harm, so over the next couple of days, she conceives a daring plan. Learning that the house next door to Sir Malcolm’s is owned by the younger brother of the Duke of Langdon, she determines to seduce the young man and then to break in to the house next door by means of a second-floor window at the side while he lies sated and asleep in bed. The trouble is, that when Amanda tries to get close to Lord Harry St. James at a masked ball, he is unresponsive and obviously uncomfortable with her interest and attempts at flirtation – and it’s the other St. James brother with whom she finds herself on the darkened terrace.
Gabriel St. James is a somewhat stereotypical hero; rich, handsome and charming, he’s cut a dash through the beds of half the females in London, and is starting to find his rather carefree lifestyle a bit on the dull side. But he is immediately intrigued by the masked shepherdess who had so clearly been trying to ingratiate herself with his brother, and determines to find out more. Her speech and quick wit indicate she is well-educated and while not of the ton, is unlikely to be a member of the demimonde; and her obvious spirit and lack of reverence for his station pique his pride, his interest, and his lust. Stealing a kiss from the woman does nothing to quench his desire, and he suggests an assignation the following evening… at his brother’s house.
That is, of course, exactly what Amanda had been angling for, but she is unprepared for the intensity of the desire Langdon stirs deep inside her, and can’t help regretting that her scheme requires her to forego the sensual pleasure she has no doubt she would find in his arms.
The first part of the story is, as I said before, rather slow to unfold as Amanda practices her deception on Langdon while at the same time being unable to resist him. However, when his brother – a studious young man – informs him of a theft of an extremely valuable ancient artefact from the British Museum and the even more recent theft of something similar from the house next door to his, Langdon begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together and is, of course, furious when he realises he has been duped. While I would normally be praising an author for taking the time to develop the romance in her story, here, I just wanted things to get moving in terms of the plot. In spite of Amanda’s unusual upbringing, she’s not a particularly interesting character, and I wasn’t impressed by the way she so often ignores her own good advice and instincts. She decides to meet Langton against her better judgement; she decides to go to bed with him against her better judgement but hey, his reputation means he must know how to show a girl a good time, so why not? Langdon is your typical man-whore who is felled by love – or so we’re told, but I never felt it. For sure, he wants to help Amanda when he discovers the truth and really goes out on a limb for her – but even so, I never believed he was doing it all out of love. In fact, even the insta-lust is barely felt and there is no element of sexual tension present at all. Quite honestly, I didn’t care for either protagonist, and not connecting with the hero and heroine is the death-knell to any romance. The lack of chemistry between them just compounds the book’s flaws and made it extremely easy to walk away from.
The second half of the story, in which Amanda and Langdon work together to discover who is behind the blackmail and to rescue Amanda’s mother, proceeds at a much livelier pace and is far more engaging, but it comes too late to save the book from the middling grade I’ve awarded it. The best part of the novel is the friendship Ms. Hunter has created between the three dukes, which is full of bonhomie and manly teasing, but which, when push comes to shove, is the sort of bond which would see each man do absolutely anything for the other two.
As one would expect of such an experienced author, the writing flows easily, although I could have done without lines like “… she screamed into the night while her moisture flowed.” Just – no.
Uneven pacing, unmemorable characters and a romance that lacked even the smallest of sparks meant A Devil of a Duke proved to be a devil of a struggle to get through – and I can’t recommend it.